How the Queen, listener-in-chief, changed the Commonwealth

The transition from Empire to Commonwealth would have been more unsettling and acrimonious, were it not for the Queen’s approach.

Written by George Alagiah | Updated: May 16, 2018 7:13:33 am
How the Queen, listener-in-chief, changed the Commonwealth Queen Elizabeth last month declared that it was her “sincere wish” that her son and heir, Prince Charles, should take her place when the time comes.

For a woman who rarely, if ever, says out loud what she really thinks, the United Kingdom’s Queen Elizabeth’s intervention in the somewhat delicate deliberations about who should succeed her as Head of the Commonwealth last month was, to say the least, uncharacteristic. She declared that it was her “sincere wish” that her son and heir, Prince Charles, should take her place when the time comes. The assembled delegates from 53 nations, representing 2.4 billion people, a third of humankind, duly obliged.

Who gains most from this arrangement – the British royal family, or the Commonwealth – is a moot point. What certainly became clear to me during the making of the BBC World News documentary The Queen: Her Commonwealth Story over several months last year – and first broadcast at the same time as the Commonwealth summit to commemorate her 92nd birthday as well as the last time she is likely to head that body – is that the Commonwealth offers the Queen, Britain’s head of state, a rare opportunity to exercise a degree of independence she could never hope to achieve at home.

At the state opening of UK’s Parliament, for example, words are, quite literally, put into her mouth. This is not the case when she speaks as Head of the Commonwealth, especially during her Christmas broadcasts, delivered without the advice of ministers. In 1983, after a trip to South Asia, the Queen argued that the greatest problem facing the world was the “gap between rich and poor countries”. Would she ever say the same about inequality within United Kingdom? That way lies a Constitutional crisis.

It’s a tribute to the Queen’s 66 years at the helm of the Commonwealth that she has, for the most part, avoided controversy, constitutional or otherwise. It’s quite an achievement given what history dished up during her reign. The Queen has presided over Britain’s transition from a colonial power to what it is today – an island nation in the process of re-inventing its place in the world. India, the jewel in the crown, may have fought for and won its freedom before she came to the throne but there was plenty more going on elsewhere in the former empire – not least the “winds of change” blowing through Africa. From the late 1950s onwards, whether it was Malaya in 1957, Nigeria in 1960, or St Kitts & Nevis in 1983, Britain’s former empire was shrinking like a deflating balloon.

Imagine for a minute a more opinionated, more bumptious monarch. How would such a figure have dealt with that transition from Empire to Commonwealth? My view now is that that process might have been more unsettling, more acrimonious, were it not for the Queen’s approach. She has been listener-in-chief, not talker-in-chief. She has won many friends, some more unlikely than others. Take Australia’s larger-than-life, straight talking former prime minister Bob Hawke who campaigned, unsuccessfully, for his country to become a republic, ditching the Queen as head of state. When we met at his office overlooking Sydney Harbour Bridge whilst making our documentary, he said he had “almost unlimited respect” for her.

To watch the archive of the Queen’s Commonwealth travels – and there’s plenty of it in our film – is to witness the transformation of a young and apparently diffident woman into one who learnt to play her hand deftly and to great effect. And remember, she has done so as a woman in a man’s world. Talking to us, Princess Anne describes the Queen playing the role of an “honorary man”. I know what she means. On a number of occasions I was told that it was precisely because she was a woman that Commonwealth politicians came to trust her. She has commanded the respect of leaders around the world, even when they had little respect for what her government at the time was doing.

The most obvious case in point was the ferocious debate within the Commonwealth in the 1980s about apartheid South Africa. Virtually every member, including powerful states like India, Canada, Australia, were in favour of sanctions; they were opposed by the UK’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. It was an issue that threatened to split the Commonwealth.

At a gathering of key leaders in London in 1986 she broke with convention and hosted what her courtiers called a “working dinner” at Buckingham Palace on the night before the official meeting. There were eight guests at the table; seven were in favour of sanctions and one – Mrs Thatcher – was not.

At some point during the meal the Queen is said to have made it clear that she wanted her beloved Commonwealth to arrive at a consensus. Sir Shridath Ramphal, the organisation’s Secretary General at the time, told me everyone around that table understood to whom that message was directed. He says Mrs Thatcher looked grim. It’s a view backed by Sir William Heseltine, then the Queen’s private secretary, who describes her unprecedented intervention as perhaps the “boldest political initiative of the decade”.

That was 30 years into her reign, but she had exhibited this independent streak much earlier. In 1961, the Macmillan government in Britain was concerned about her planned trip to Ghana fearing that political unrest there – bombs were going off – made the trip unsafe and that it might look like an endorsement of an increasingly authoritarian Kwame Nkrumah. The Queen, however, was adamant. Aware that Ghana’s first leader was flirting with the Communist bloc she insisted on going, telling the prime minister she took her Commonwealth responsibilities very seriously.

That commitment has not diminished with time; if anything, it has grown. She will be a hard act to follow. Fair or not, the Queen has set a standard against which Prince Charles will be judged.

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George Alagiah in an anchor with BBC World News, spent several months making a documentary on Queen Elizabeth as the Head of the Commonwealth and tweets @BBCAlagiah

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